Before Melania Trump's visit, looking back on US First Ladies in India, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama
Much has been said of the soft power of the US' First Ladies, but on their trips to India, some had a more tangible impact than others.
In March 1962, a little over a year after her husband John F Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy visited India. She was the first US First Lady to do so, as her predecessor Mamie Eisenhower hadn’t accompanied Dwight Eisenhower on his visit here.
While at least six other First Ladies would follow in Jacqueline’s footsteps to India, her visit was perhaps most comparable in tone to Queen Elizabeth’s 1961 visit — not as many crowds, but nearly as much pomp, not as much ceremony but certainly as much wooing on the part of her hosts.
Unlike Prince Phillip’s constant presence by Elizabeth’s side, Jacqueline had come to India without JFK; instead, her sister Lee Radziwill provided company on the nine-day trip. About 32 years old at the time, Jacqueline was already a style icon, and her poise during that visit, as she met with dignitaries and participated in cultural events, seemed as unruffled as her coiffure (which she reportedly maintained by wrapping in a silk scarf at night, and sleeping on a silk pillow).
A short film of the trip shows Jacqueline disembarking from her airplane and greeting Prime Minister Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad; walking through a garden and admiring flowers with Nehru; being given a tour of the US Embassy in Delhi; seated on a swing with Indira, and later, watching textiles being modelled; at a banquet with the Maharaja of Udaipur. She makes a short speech about India-US relations, meets babies at a hospital, takes an elephant ride, goes boating on Lake Pichola… dressed in her form-flattering outfits, paired with pearls, gloves and hats, she seems aware always of her impact on those gazing upon her. The only time that self-consciousness slips away is when she is petting a baby elephant and attempting to garland it: the little pachyderm requires just a bit of coaxing to allow the First Lady to slip the flowers past its head.
The tableau is of a young First Lady meeting a young nation, both sides eager to please. And it’s made just a bit more poignant by the events that would follow, by November of 1963.
A half a century later, the script for Michelle Obama’s first India visit, in 2010, proceeded differently. Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama are considered among the most iconic US First Ladies, but there’s quite a chasm between the worlds of 1962 and 2010. One wonders, for instance, how Jacqueline would have fared in the social media era (quick and biased verdict: splendidly) and how her image may have been shaped to suit it. Her trip to India too would have had less of the visiting royalty overtone, and perhaps more of a hands-on/engaged leader vibe.
The latter was certainly how Michelle Obama appeared during her visits to India in 2010, and in 2015. By Barack Obama’s side during parts of her trip, at others, she was quite happy to dive into her varied engagements — dancing with children and playing hopscotch with as much confidence and warmth as when greeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur. Her candidness went beyond the more careful photo-ops of previous First Ladies, including Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton who had fairly involved itineraries in India. Her wardrobe too — while encompassing evening gowns and formal dresses with fitted bodices and flared skirts — included more casual ‘looks’ than those of previous visiting First Ladies.
When she meets Prime Narendra Modi in 2015, however, her floral dress and jacket set clash with his more ornate orange shawl; her body language seems just a bit stilted, a little less natural.
“In her biography, Becoming, Michelle Obama mentions, ‘Optics governed more or less everything in the political world, and I factored this into every outfit’. What the First Ladies wear on their overseas tours depicts their agenda and the willingness to be seen with the people they are aiming to see,” says image consultant Chetna Mehrotra.
“[On her India tour/s] Michelle Obama made it a point to wear an Indian designer, although it wasn’t the first time Bibhu Mohapatra had designed a dress for her. She wore dresses with floral prints, which is significant because flowers signify being at ease, or an extension of friendship. Her attire channels the sense of being herself, and gives a vibe of ease and liberty.”
Mehrotra notes that Jacqueline Kennedy’s preference for classic Western-wear coupled with gloves and pearl jewellery signaled her elite background and tastes. On her India visits, however, she made it a point to include vibrant, jewel tones in her clothing, to embrace local elements. “She wanted to be seen, yet gave due respect to the place where she was at, paying respect to the local sensitivities,” says Mehrotra. “She didn’t attempt to overshadow the occasion with her magnetic personality.”
Between Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama, four other First Ladies visited India. Each encountered an India at a different stage of becoming, and the welcomes that were extended to them were also different. The trips to the Taj Mahal may have continued, but there was lesser emphasis on an 'exotic' experience, although the red carpet is laid out in many other (expensive) forms.
Pat Nixon made — quite literally — a day-trip, flanking her husband Richard as he met with Indira Gandhi in 1969, and jotting down notes during an interaction with children. While the bright red wool coat she donned for her China visit has become an object of interest in terms of fashion history, and was seen as depicting the US’ newfound friendship for China, for her India visit didn’t yield any such sartorial milestones. Rosalynn Carter had a more engaged trip when she arrived here in 1978 — a mark of how serious she always was about her work as the US’ First Lady, and Laura Bush had a fairly cookie-cutter template for her 2006 visit. In this span, however, it is Hillary Clinton’s visits that stand out.
In 1995, Hillary Clinton visited India with her daughter Chelsea, a trip that The New York Times reportedly described as combining the “giddiness of a sorority spring break with the sober feel of a graduate seminar on the responsibilities of sisterhood”. On that trip, Hillary wears a bright pink skirt and blouse and poses almost coyly on a bench before the Taj Mahal with Chelsea; after a visit to SEWA, a white garland is added around her neck. For a visit to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, she wears a flared skirt with a more somber black jacket. (Hillary’s next visit to India was in 1997 for Mother Teresa’s funeral.) And even though she delivers serious speeches and does serious things — the India visit was part of a longer Southeast Asia tour focusing on women’s rights and education — the impression of Hillary in India circa 1995 is markedly different from the times she would return as the US’ Secretary of State. There’s an almost girlish, carefree air to her that she seemed to shed later on. Maybe it was the scrutiny of her after Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment trial, or the fact that she was preparing for her own political career once her stint as First Lady ended in 2001.
“Hillary Clinton always comes across as a leader who knows what she wants and how she wants it. Her attire signifies this; note her clean and neat silhouettes which amplify the impression of straightforwardness,” observes image consultant Chetna Mehrotra. “Being a former lawyer also contributes to the way she dresses.”
Melania Trump — the seventh US First Lady to visit India — would perhaps like to emulate Jacqueline Kennedy but is compared more often with her predecessor Michelle Obama.
Image-wise, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Style-wise, where Michelle Obama won praise for promoting little-known American talent and boosting the profiles of designers like Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung, not to mention wearing brands like J.Crew, Melania is talked about for the expensive outfits she prefers: a $51,000 jacket, a $1,300 shirt for 'gardening'. At other times, her clothing choices are met with backlash for being inappropriate: tone-deaf or insensitive slogans on her coats, stilettos for visiting hurricane victims, a colonial-style helmet/hat for a visit to Africa, and a Handmaid's Tale-style veil for meeting the Pope.
As much as Jacqueline Kennedy's style was fetishised, Melania Trump's has been dissected — fuelled partly by intrigue surrounding the sphinx-like First Lady and partly by horror for Donald Trump, and all of the speculation surrounding their marriage. In the absence of information from or about her, her clothing choices are scrutinised endlessly for clues as to what she feels about her husband… that “pussy bow” blouse, for instance, or if her preference for draping her jackets over her shoulders like a cape (instead of putting her arms into their sleeves) is a tactic to avoid holding her husband's hand.
And if such is the case, what will her choice of clothing indicate when she comes to India, whose Prime Minister seems far more comfortable holding hands with her husband than she seems to be?
— With inputs from Natasha Coutinho D’Souza
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